Like a lot of industrial designers, I learned my craft with digital tools.  I was taught to use a computer to design, and I’ve been using one ever since.  That education path was common in industrial design, but it’s only recently been replicated in fashion.

I started out working in 2D, but I quickly moved to 3D engineering and rendering software because they brought the end result closer.  By working in 3D, I was able to more easily visualise my ideas, give them shape, and then to share those concepts with both manufacturing partners and marketing teams.  Having spoken to a lot of apparel and footwear designers, I know they feel the same way about the power of 3D to breathe life into new styles and inspirations.  And the generation entering the apparel workforce today is the first with native 3D skills.

But while designers generate their own ideas, they also rely on pre-existing digital content and assets to reduce their workloads, and to bring those ideas to life as seamlessly as possible.

What do I mean by digital content?  Tools and libraries that empower the designer to freely express themselves without imposing their own constraints.  These might be stores of common, re-usable components, archives of colours, or libraries of digital materials.

Digital materials in particular are essential to digital product creation, since designers need a bridge between the fabrics that are going to be used to manufacture their collections, and the digital environment they design those collections in.

I am the design director behind Substance by Adobe’s latest, large-scale fashion-specific fabric drop.  Substance Source is our high-end material library for 3D projects, and we recently added a 200-strong collection of exclusive parametric materials that were conceived with the needs of creative designers firmly in mind.  In this article I’d like to dive into our process, explain not just why I believe digital materials are so important, but why it’s crucial that they fit into designers’ real, day-to-day workflows and help carry their vision upstream, into manufacturing, and downstream to shoppers.

When we set out to broaden the fashion content available through Substance Source, we had three clearly-defined core values: diversity, functionality, and inspiration.

Diversity

In the case of textiles, designers require libraries of materials that cover every base, from wovens to knits and jacquards.  Our objective was to identify the key materials that designers and stylists use to create all the most common types of garments and accessories.  In practice, these fabrics make up 99% of the designer’s day-to-day toolbox, and, provided they are properly categorised according to industry conventions, they should cater to the vast majority of new style creation projects.

Categorising fashion-specific materials like these, though, is not an administrative task.  To make any library of digital fabrics truly useful for designers, the categorisation needs to be done by someone who speaks the same language as designers and pattern makers.  Without the right names, characteristics, and labelling taxonomy, those digital materials will be less intuitive to find and work with than their physical counterparts.

The second component of a digital material should be functionality.  To be more useful than a physical prototype, a digital material should offer unique functional and aesthetic benefits to designers.

First, a virtual fabric should be photorealistic.  This means that a designer should be able to create a style, dress a digital avatar in it, and showcase the fabric virtually, in a way that can serve all the same purposes that a physical sample would.  This can extend from early design decision-making and risk assessment – selecting which styles to develop further, and which ones to discard – right through to generating the hundreds of images needed to populate an eCommerce storefront.

Without photorealism, a digital material will fall short.  So much of what makes a garment unique is conveyed by the way it looks.  At a glance, a shopper (or a retail buyer) can tell what occasion the garment is for (sportswear, casual, or smart) and estimate how they would feel wearing it and how it might perform in day to day life.  As consumers, the details of a material set these expectations for us.  And in today’s world, where touching physical garments on a rack or in a changing room is difficult, a sufficiently detailed 3D render can communicate all these characteristics – from glossiness and irregularities in the weave, to subtle anisotropic effects when the material is viewed from different directions.

When we sat down to design materials with fashion designers in mind, we knew these little tricks and effects had to be included, because they conveyed so much of the feel of the fabric.  For a designer to buy into it, and for a customer to use it to make a buying decision, a digital materials has to be able to accurately communicate softness or tactility, weight and flexibility in a way that a 2D workflow could not.

But looking real is only the tip of the iceberg.  People have been able to create believable-looking digital textures of textiles for some time – typically through scanning an existing physical material.  For a digital material to bend to a designer’s desires, it needs to also empower them to iterate and innovate.

Functionality

Our objective was therefore to allow fashion designers to come up with something completely new – without needing to understand digital material creation at a technical level, and without needing to rely on digitising existing physical samples.  For a digital material to really empower a designer, it needs to give them creative freedom, and allow them to experiment quickly, intuitively, and non-destructively without the cost and delay that would come with trying the same level of experimentation with physical materials.

The latest set of materials in Substance Source were built to offer this flexibility.  At first glance they look like individual fabrics, but each is also its own mini-generator, capable of creating infinite variations on its own structure.

If that sounds complicated, bear with me.  Take a twill fabric, for example.  In real life it would be made by intertwining different threads and yarns into a recipe, so we observed this process and replicated it digitally – giving users a simple but powerful digital loom that allows them to tweak different parameters to make different variations on that twill in any colour combination they want.

The same principle applies to other interlocking knitted structures such as denim, satin, tweed and other jerseys – all of which need to be designed the same way as their physical counterparts if fashion designers are going to be able to visualise new permutations of them the same way they would with a weaving machine in a workshop.

But there is, of course one key difference: the production technique is the same, but the speed of creating a new variation digitally in instant, whereas it can take much longer on the factory floor.

So how does digital material variation actually work, and how do we make a complex technical process into a simple set of sliders for the end user?  Let me break it down slightly. 

A common request from a designer would be that they like a fabric, but they want to see it in a different colour.  For a physical fabric, that would mean creating a new dye recipe, applying it to a substrate, and waiting for it to arrive from the supplier.  For a digital fabric in Substance, we create a parameter that allows the user to input their own colour values – or use user-friendly sliders – and alter it on the fly.

That is, though, a fairly simple request, and parametric materials can go much deeper.  We want designers to be able to create new colour harmonies by changing the colour, glossiness, and even the metallic look of the warp and weft independently.  And very soon we plan to allow designers to instantly browse a fabric in a complete range of Pantone colour references.

These are powerful tools, but as I mentioned earlier, the purpose of digital content – like parametric digital materials – is to make designers’ lives easier as well as to offer them greater creative freedom.  Designers do not have a lot of time to spend on the luxury of learning new tools, and in an industry where entire collections are launching every few months, simplifying the process of adopting digital workflows and creating new digital assets is paramount.

Parametric materials are, by definition, ready-to-use content.  The end user does not need to concern themselves with how the fabrics were built, and the ability to vary one or more of their parameters to create their own versions is managed through a simple interface.  Our team of expert artists have tackled the technical side of complex assembly recipes, leaving creative designers with the power to tweak sliders to create photoreal-looking fabrics that look and behave the way they want.

Using parametric materials as a starting point, designers can now generate libraries of hundreds of fabric presets in a matter of minutes and use these to create moodboards and colour pitch-outs – a task that would have taken hours if not weeks using traditional weaving or fabric scanning techniques.

Inspiration

A digital materials platform should, first and foremost, be a source of inspiration.  This has always been an overriding objective with Substance Source in our work with other industries – including architectural visualisation, videogames, and movie VFX, where parametric materials are crucial components of artists’ workflows.  We believe designers turn to digital materials platforms looking for curation – for suggestions, collections, and ideas that encourage them to turn a library of technical resources into the desire to try new things and learn from others.

As well as creating digital content, I believe it’s essential for anyone working on digital materials to step into the shoes of fashion designers and design their own styles in 3D.  Throughout 2020 we have tracked colour macro trends and used them to create our own fabric harmonies and build our own collections, to make sure we understand the finite details that make can make or break digital materials in a designer’s real workflow.

From that experience, and from my conversations with designers who, like me, learnt their professional with digital tools, I know that digital methods will never completely replace analogue ones.  No matter how detailed, or flexible, a digital material cannot replicate the feel of fabric on skin.  But provided they meet the criteria I’ve set out here – diversity, functionality, and inspiration – they can help the entire industry to design better products. And when you design digital materials with designers in mind, the benefits also extend both up and downstream.  From shortening the manufacturing cycle and reducing waste, to powering consumer-facing product configurators that can directly feed manufacturing, the potential of digital materials is huge – provided we do them justice.


About the sponsor: Nicolas Paulhac is Head of Content Creation, 3D & Immersive at Adobe.  He has more than 10 years’ experience as a colour, material, and finish (CMF) specialist and industrial designer for Acer, Nokia, and Microsoft.  Head here to view the latest collection of fashion-specific materials in the Substance Source library.

A full livestream detailing the creation and use of the latest fashion-specific materials in the Substance suite is also available to rewatch.

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